Creation, Vocation, Permission, & Prohibition

Illustration by Robert Crum
The story of God and the world God has made isn't one that unfolds in a straight line from the bottom left corner to the top right on the "Progress Chart" - as if everything has gone along smoothly and things are exactly as they should be. To say that would actually collude with an overly optimistic version of fatalism - the idea that God always gets his way and people really have no say. Don't get me wrong. It's not that God couldn't have free chosen to create a world like. It's just that the bulk of the biblical text doesn't seem to offer that as the portrait of God, humans, or the creation at-large.

According to the creation story in Genesis 2, which is lesser-known than its predecessor in Genesis 1, God created the earth and the heavens (2:4b). God created a man from the dust and breathed life into his nostrils (2:7). God created a garden and placed the man in it (2:8). God gave the man a vocation: tend and watch over the garden (2:15). God granted the man permission to eat from every tree in the garden (2:16), but announced a prohibition from eating of one particular tree: the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (2:17). God acknowledges that the man should not be alone (ie. the task is to great for just the man, so he needs a "partner" to help create a workforce) (2:18).

This discussion has relevance for today because Ann Coulter (and plenty of others who say similar things in less public places) insists that, "God gave us the earth. We have dominion over the plants, the animals, the trees. God said, 'Earth is yours. Take it. Rape it. It's yours'" (Hannity & Colmes, 6/20/01).

Walter Brueggemann offers a different view that is more in-synch with Christian theology, even though his quote lacks the "God" references that Coulter artificially used in attempt to bolster her argument. Brueggemann says, "The verbs ["till" and "keep"] suggest not exploitative, self-aggrandizing use of the earth, but gentle care for and enhancement of the earth and all its creatures. In this regard the mandate of obedience issues in stewardship, the wise care for the world and its creatures, who are entrusted to human administration" (Theology of the Old Testament, 461).

So work was there from the start. It was an honorable vocation bestowed on people in order to wisely manage good creation on behalf of God. And from the start, things could go well for creation, hence the permission; or things could go in the other direction, hence the prohibition. We all have a part to play.

As an aside, I really like the imagery evoked in Rob Lacey's modernized rendition of these verses. He says, "God gives the man a job: warden in the Eden Garden. Job spec - to protect and till it. In God's contract he clearly states the man has free pickings of anything that grows in the garden, except the tree that tells you the difference between right and wrong. If you eat from that tree, the rules are pretty direct - you'll die" (The Word on the Street).

I was struck by his use of "Eden Garden" as opposed to the more commonplace "Garden of Eden." Sometimes a little twist like that can stir up new ideas about the text. For instance, when I saw the way Lacey reversed the two words ("Garden" and "Eden"), I checked around to see if I could find anyone else who had a new spin (that is, new to me) on the old verbage related the the Hebrew word gan, which is translated as "garden."

Gerhard Von Rad, a German Old Testament scholar, wrote in his commentary on Genesis that, "God plants a garden for man in Eden, which we must think of as a park of trees (cf. Ezekiel 31:8)" (77).

Albert Barnes, a 19th century American theologian and author of Barnes' Notes on the Old and New Testaments, offers "park" or "an enclosed piece of ground" as an alternative translation to "garden" in Genesis 2:8 and following.

John Goldingay, current professor of Old Testament at Fuller Theological Seminary, calls the garden an "orchard" on page 34 of his popular-level commentary Genesis for Everyone: Chapters 1-16. But he goes beyond that description in Old Testament Theology (vol. 1): Israel's Gospel. There he writes, "[T]he garden is more like a farm than an orchard..." (119).

So there's considerable imaginative possibilities available to biblical interpreters today. The next time you are including this text in a sermon or conversation, mix it up with one of the alternative renderings ("park of trees," "park," "orchard," "farm," or even "national forest") and see where it takes you!

Related Posts:
Keeping It Together: How To Read the Bible
Missing the Point: Ken Ham & Genesis 1

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